Sandra Laing's agonising journey
The summons to the headmaster's office
One day in March 1966 a little girl sitting in her classroom at school was called to the headmaster's office. In the headmaster's office were two policemen.
“I'm afraid you're going to have to leave us,” the headmaster said to her, and she was escorted, without explanation by either the headmaster or the policemen, by the policemen out of the school .
The little girl was 11 years old. Her name was Sandra Laing.
So began one of the more bizarre and tragic episodes in the brief and inglorious history of apartheid.
The incident, briefly, blazed across the world in headlines and angry comment, but was quite soon dropped into the abyss of oblivion until some ten years later John Pilger made a chilling documentary on "The Search for Sandra Laing" which brilliantly exposed the hypocrisies and cruelties of the race-based fascism of white South African society.
The tragic story began in 1955 when, in Piet Retief, a small town in South Africa close to the border with the Kingdom of Swaziland, a girl was born to Abraham and Sannie Laing, a conservative Afrikaner couple. They named her Sandra.
I'm not sure how aware her parents were of the meaning of the name they chose for their daughter, but it was in any case rather appropriately prophetic: the name is a variant of Alexander, which means “defender of humanity.”
The parents were distressed by their daughter's appearance which, in apartheid South Africa, was not promising: she had dark curly hair which curled tighter and tighter as she grew, and her skin was also darker than usual for a “white” child.
In the racial madness of the time the child was “re-classified” coloured and the whisperings of her mother's infidelity with a black man caused embarrassment and pain.
The whisperings were not true – Sandra's appearance was caused by a gene from many generations back and was evidence of the falsity of the myth of “racial purity” propagated by the apartheid regime.
It was agonising for Abraham and Sannie Laing, and completely devastating for Sandra. She had to leave the “white” school where she had been taunted by her fellow-learners and had embarrassed her teachers by her appearance.
Abraham and Sannie Laing were conservative supporters of the Nationalist Party, devout members of the apartheid-supporting Dutch Reformed Church. They were put into a terrible quandary by their daughter's appearance.
Nevertheless Abraham fought an 18-month legal battle to have his daughter re-classifed as white, a battle which went all the way to the Supreme Court and which was in the end successful, in kind of Pyrrhic victory, in that Sandra's life as a "white" was already destroyed.
Sandra, in spite of being re-classified “white”, was refused entry to most white schools and her education was effectively terminated.
Sandra met and fell in love with a Swazi man, Petrus Zwane, with whom she eloped to Swaziland at the age of 15, in spite of her father's threat to kill both her and himself if she did so. She never saw her father again, although she madce surreptitious visits to her mother, both of them risking her father's anger by doing so.
She had two children by Zwane but he became violent after their third child died in infancy, and she had to leave him.
Sandra went to the East Rand in what is now the province of Gauteng and made a new life with her new hiusband, Johannes Motlaung, with whom she lives a peaceful and happy life, although the shadow of her agonising past still hangs over her.
The story of Sandra Laing is an indictment of racism and porejudice. It shows the futility of categorising people and basing decisions on those categories.
But most of all it shows the cruelty of ideology backed by religion and the way the human spirit will always find a way to break through the barriers.
Once, in the middle of a concrete bridge carrying a motorway across railway lines, a barren expanse of tarmac crossing a profusion of shiny steel rails, I saw a beautiful sunflower glowing golden and beautiful, growing in a small crack. That's how Sandra Laing was - she was human beauty refusing to succumb to the barrenness of ideology.
The video at right was made by the "Special Assignment" team of the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) and is very moving and beautiful. I encourage readers to watch it. So much of the apartheid past is captured there, and the hope for a more humane future.
Book and film of Sandra's story
A book about Sandra was written by journalist Judith Stone. The book, entitled When She was White (Miramax, 2007) has, in the words of reviewer Rebecca Walker (Washington Post, 27 May 2007) "contributed to a relatively new genre of post-colonial narrative, in which whites and blacks collaborate in exposing the harm done by colonialism."
As Rebecca Walker writes in her review of When She Was White, Sandra's "ultimate triumph may lie in the interest taken in her by a British movie producer who optioned her story, paying her enough money to undergo psychotherapy."
The review ends with this comment: "He also promised to bring Laing's harrowing tale to a wider audience, where it will continue to complicate our ideas about the meaning of skin color. It may even reveal, once and for all, the fallacy of all racial categorizing."
In 2008 director Anthony Fabian made Sandra's story into a film called "Skin", starring Sophie Okonedo as Sandra. It has won numerous awards and does include at least one South African actor, Bongani Masondo.
He has kept his promise, unlike so many in Sandra's life, who let her down so badly.
Cindy left a comment on my Hub about Jan Smuts suggesting I do a Hub about Sandra Laing.
As I had known about this story for many years and was much moved by it, I immediately went to work on it.
So this Hub is dedicated with affection, admiration and thanks, to Cindy Vine.
The text on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2011